At this liturgy in churches around the world, there will be much discussion about the reality that Jesus Christ, God incarnate in humanity, the creator of all things, seen and unseen, had humility enough to stoop down, take on the role of a servant, and wash the feet of his friends and disciples. This is an important act, one that we are called to follow, and certainly worthy of much reflection. It is an example to us and one that we should consider as, every day, we ponder with God how we might best see Christ in others and be seen as little Christs in the world.
Jesus’s pairing of the act of washing his friends’ feet and then gives them a new commandment: to love one another as he has loved them. To do for each other what he has done for them. This commandment is the basis for why we each wash the other’s feet today, it is why some Christians consider the act a sacrament, it is why we so highly value repeating the actions of Jesus in feeding the hungry, comforting the sick, and even why the Church prizes martyrdom: dying for the sake of one’s faith. We are called to do as Jesus has done. We are called to love as Jesus has loved.
In this washing of feet as a way of showing love, it seems important that we consider exactly whose feet Jesus was washing. We should also consider the depth of love we are called to display when we think about just what Jesus’s actions reveal to us. Surely, among the gathered disciples were those closest to Jesus and for whom he had great love. Surely the beloved disciple was there and Mary Magdalene; these are easy feet to wash, carefully and lovingly. Andrew, the first-called of the disciples may have been first in line to be washed after the supper they shared, ready to take up his Lord’s call. Matthew, the converted tax-collector would have been there, his current faith and past acts a reminder that much love is shown where much is forgiven. Bartholomew and his quiet, persistent faith. Perhaps Jesus’s own mother, Mary, was among the crowd; a joy to wash the feet which carried him before he could walk.
Also among those gathered was Peter. In his characteristic, brash and stubborn way, he refuses to have his feet washed at first, thinking it inappropriate and insulting. Once Jesus assures him of its necessity, Peter wants Jesus to wash all of him, not just the feet. No, not all of you, Jesus says, just the feet tonight. Peter is all-in, or all-out, with little sense of subtlety. Jesus works hard to get him on the same page as the others, patient and loving. Jesus does this patient, loving, humbling work our of love for Peter.
Jesus loves Peter this much while knowing that, before the cock crows the next morning, Peter will have three times denied even knowing Jesus, much less loving him. Jesus also knows that, in a few weeks’ time, after the resurrection when he asks Peter “Do you love me?” Peter’s shame and guilt will be so great that he will not be able to love Jesus the way he would like. These feet, soon to carry the dreadful burden of such a denial, Jesus washed clean.
Also among those gathered was Judas Iscariot. Judas was so charismatic, fastidious, and trustworthy that Jesus and all of the disciples kept their money with him. The common purse was his to manage and to account for with the trust of all. Of course, as is true for all of us, when Judas was tempted, he was tempted through his greatest gifts. John reminds us in his telling of the Gospel that Judas was always skimming a little off the top of the community’s funds. The allure of influence with leadership and the promise of a little wealth were too much for Judas and he decided to betray Jesus to the authorities. Adding insult to injury, Judas would identify Jesus to them with a kiss, a sign of peace and love. After his actions, Judas would realize that his guilt over betraying a beloved friend could not be assuaged and he would dispose of the money and take his own life.
Jesus loved Judas so much that, knowing all of this would come to pass, Jesus shared a meal with his friend. After they had broken bread and shared wine, Jesus took the towel, knelt down, and washed the feet of Judas Iscariot. Judas, who had objected to Mary of Bethany’s washing and anointing of Jesus’s feet; Judas, who was a thief of his friends’ money; Judas, who would betray his master and friend to death with a sign of peace and love; Judas had his feet washed by Jesus.
In a world increasingly divided by violence and extreme ideologies, Christians remain called to be icons of love for all of our neighbours. It is easy to wash the feet of our fellow parishioners here, tonight, in a familiar place with those we love and trust. It is easy to wash the feet of the beloved disciple and Mary Magdalene. Have we the courage to believe that God’s redemption is real and, living in its sure and certain hope, wash the feet of Peter? Of Judas?